Diesel gets new scrutiny

By Dale Dempsey
Copyright 1998 Dayton Daily News
August 31, 1998

EPA action pushes car engine development

General Motors, which has geared part of its strategy for making cars and trucks on the new generation of diesel engines, may soon find diesel exhaust coming under increased regulation.

New direct-injection diesel engines, some of which will be built in the $ 350 million plant under construction in Moraine, are far cleaner than their smoky, noisy predecessors. But it remains to be seen if they will be clean enough to meet the tougher air standards some environmental groups are pushing.

Last week, the California Air Resources Board said that 40 unregulated chemicals found in diesel fumes must be listed as toxic air pollutants. California is moving toward regulations to limit human exposure to cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and dioxin from diesel exhaust. Recent studies of workers in close contact with diesel exhaust, mostly locomotive workers, found a 40 percent increased risk of cancer after long-term exposure.

"Some people of course think that the term 'clean diesel' is akin to 'safe nuclear,'' said Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust, one of the groups urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt stricter standards for the entire country similar to California's.

Currently, diesel engines fall under a more relaxed pollutant standard, allowing 1 gram of particulate emission per mile, compared to 0.4 gram for gasoline-powered vehicles.

"California's decision certainly puts increased pressure on the EPA to eliminate the current double standard," O'Donnell said.

Al Rasegin, director of GM powertrain division in Pontiac, Mich., told the Dayton Daily News in March that the future of diesels is dependent on three factors: regulatory standards, the development of cleaner-burning diesel fuel and mileage standards for cars and trucks.

Diesels are an attractive alternative to automakers seeking to boost the fuel mileage of their cars and trucks, in particular for popular sport utility vehicles. The newer engines are more durable and can increase mileage from 20 to 50 percent. All of the major automakers have some kind of program to build diesels, which are widely used around the world but still make up only a small segment of the U.S. market.

A GM spokeswoman said that the company is continuing to develop its diesel plans in Dayton.

Charlie Souhrada, with the Engine Manufacturers Association, said the industry welcomed California's ruling.

"We view it as a positive move and a validation of the work the industry has done to reduce particulate matter," he said.

Diesels emit less carbon dioxide, a gas that worsens the earth's "greenhouse effect," than gasoline engines. But they put out more nitrogen oxide and fine particulate matter. The U.S. EPA, citing health studies, is seeking to limit public exposure to both nitrogen oxide and particulates.

The U.S. EPA is preparing the second round of emission regulations, due by the year 2003, and tougher diesel fume standards are under discussion. That could force some older, black-smoke belching trucks off the road.

Souhrada said that the industry has already reduced about 90 percent of the particulate emissions with the newer diesels, but conceded, "that last 10 percent is going to be difficult to solve."

Dan Greenbaum, director of the Health Effects Institute in Cambridge, Mass., said it has yet to be determined if the newer diesels, combined with cleaner fuel and exhaust controls, can bring emissions down to a safe level.

"The problem is that the health studies were done with the older kind of diesels," Greenbaum said. "With the newer diesels we know the exposure levels are lower and different in character, putting out fewer of some chemicals. We are just putting out proposals now for scientists to study the new engines effects."

The Health Effects Institute is jointly funded by the U.S. EPA and the major auto manufacturers but conducts independent research.

"Studying the effects of today's exposure levels is difficult because it takes 15 to 20 years to develop cancer, so it will be a long time before we know anything," Greenbaum said.

Greenbaum said that diesel fumes will be coming under increased scrutiny.

"The EPA is talking about ways we can control diesels further," he said. The U.S. EPA released its own study earlier this year, saying that diesel fumes were a "probable" carcinogen, likely to produce cancer in humans.

* CONTACT Dale Dempsey at (937) 225-2270 or by e-mail dale_dempsey@coxohio.com

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